Whether championing math, poetry, or just how to be a decent human being, the inspirational teacher is as familiar to movie audiences as the class stoner. “Critical Thinking” does little to detach itself from genre cliché; yet this heartfelt drama about a rough-and-tumble group of high-schoolers who claw their way to a national chess tournament has a sweetness that softens its flaws.
Based on a true story and set in an underserved Miami neighborhood in 1998, the movie drops us into the boisterous classroom of Mr. Martinez (played by the director, John Leguizamo).
“Chess is the great equalizer,” he tells his multiethnic students, using the game to teach his critical thinking elective — with a side of racial history discouraged by his school board. The principal (Rachel Bay Jones) might treat his classroom like a dumping ground for miscreants, but Martinez, assisted by wigs and funny accents, explains complicated chess moves with a deftness that cuts through their indifference.
With goals as modest as the lives of its characters, “Critical Thinking” follows the predictable arc of the underdog drama as the chess team overcomes troubled home situations and other setbacks on the road to a Beverly Hills-set finale. Slow and straightforward, the movie knows that a chess match is hardly a barnburner; but its lively young performers and their eventual triumph are easy to warm to. Drugs and gangs might beckon — and ICE hovers just outside the frame — but they’re no match for the values of sportsmanship and teamwork. And Mr. Martinez’s pep talks.